Don't say plebs!

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The Right Honorable Andrew John Bower Mitchell M.P. was recently appointed Chief Whip for the Conservative Party in the House of Commons (responsible for party discipline with respect to voting). A few days ago he was leaving the area of the Prime Minister's residence in Downing Street on his bike. The police on security duty there open the main gates to Downing Street as seldom as possible for obvious reasons, and on this occasion they declined to open the main gates just to let him ride through. An armed police officer pointed him to a smaller pedestrian gate. Mitchell then proceeded to create the UK's political scandal of the week. He started swearing at the police officer, and got yet more abusive when a second officer advised him to calm down and warned him that he could be arrested. What's more, Mitchell used not just an obscene expletive adjectival modifier but also a blunt monosyllabic noun often employed as a put-down for the non-gentry. Just what the Conservative Party, whose popularity has been plummeting, really didn't need.

It would be a bit difficult for me to give you the details if I wrote about this on Lingua Franca, because The Chronicle, ever concerned to spare you any blushes, maintains what could be called strict New York Times rules when it comes to foul language. As you may have read here on Language Log recently, the Times "virtually never prints obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones," and in addition "forgoes offensive or coy hints" with "telltale strings of hyphens or dashes." Hence the recent astonishing euphemism from a "flustered adviser" saying that the Romney campaign was "turning into a vulgar, unprintable phrase."

Here on Language Log, though, we boldly face the language we dissect, even when it's ugly stuff. According to police reports, Mr Mitchell's tirade included the following:

"I'm the Chief Whip; I'm telling you, open this gate."
"Don't you know who I am?"
"I'm the Chief Whip and I'm coming through these gates."
"I'll have your fucking job for this."
"Best you learn your fucking place. You don't run this fucking government. You're fucking plebs."
"You haven't heard the last of this."
"I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us."

Now, on the day in question, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had duties elsewhere. He was visiting the families of two young, unarmed, female police officers who had been killed in cold blood. Just 33 hours before the Mitchell incident, a man already facing charges of murder lured the two policewomen to a housing estate in Manchester with a fake burglary report, and when they arrived he murdered them using a gun and a grenade. His work done, he then turned himself in at Tameside police station.

The country was still in shock at the heartlessness of this callous hate crime against police. Pictures of the two young women were all over the popular press, and the public outpouring of sympathy had been massive. (A Facebook page later turned up congratulating the murderer for being a hero, and expressing the hope that there would be many more killings of police officers. The Facebook gloater was arrested.)

Such was the context in which Andrew Mitchell verbally attacked two police officers, within sight of the Prime Minister's front door, for doing their duty with respect to the security rules that his own government had given them responsibility for enforcing.

The truly remarkable thing (which of course is about language, this being Language Log, not Police Log) is that the government response to the outcry, and the British press discussion following from it, has focused to a considerable extent on whether he used the word pleb, and what it entailed.

One opinion expressed on BBC Radio 4 was that "Nobody has used that word since 1930." That is not difficult to falsify: page 107 of Nancy Cole's 2011 novel A Different Kind of Courage has it; page 36 of Paula Morris's 2010 novel Ruined has it; page 173 of Charles Bunyan's 2010 novel A Catholic Skeleton has it; page 482 of Sherrilyn Kenyon's 2009 novel Born of Night has it; page 60 of Conrad Totman's 2008 book Japan Before Perry has it; page 146 of Craig Sherborne's 2005 memoir Hoi Polloi has it… But I won't go on; people never seem to cotton to the fact that here at Language Log we have the technology to check these things.

Pleb is what linguists call a clipping: It appears to have been formed by dropping all but the first syllable of the word plebeian. [Or perhaps, as a Language Log reader suggested, it might be a back-formation of a singular from the Latin singular collective noun plebs, meaning something like "the common herd consisting of those not eligible for civic office", misinterpreted in English as a plural noun. That would be amusing, because it would mean Mitchell was using a word derived from a mistake typically made by those uneducated in Latin, i.e., typically made by the plebs.]

The plebeians in ancient Rome were commoners, not allowed to belong to the Senate or to hold any civic office. It has been current in British English for many decades, but it is particularly familiar in one stratum of UK life: in the "public" (i.e., private fee-supported) schools that educate the elite of England.

Mitchell attended Rugby School, which is almost as famous as Eton, partly because of the novel Tom Brown's School Days, with its vivid scenes of bullying and torture by the odious bully Flashman. Several of the newspapers report that Mitchell's nickname when he was at Rugby was "Thrasher".

Boys at schools like Eton and Rugby are very familiar with the distinction between the elite whose destiny is to enjoy prosperity and to participate in ruling the country, and the plebs who make their beds and cook their meals and serve in lowly roles like police constable. (David Cameron and about 15 of his closest parliamentary associates were Eton boys, which must constitute the most extraordinary domination of a national government by a single high school anywhere on the planet.)

One might have thought that those writing in the newspapers or quoted would be arguing that calling an on-duty police office a "fucking X" for any X at all should merit a career-damaging penalty; but they are not. It is pleb that crosses the line, apparently. And the Conservatives' relations with the police (never very good) have significantly worsened. John Tully of the Metropolitan Police Federation has said Mitchell should resign his post. Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, has concurred, saying that it will be difficult for Mitchell to continue in this job.

To have a prominent Conservative abusing police constables and calling them plebs at the gates of Downing Street while the Prime Minister was visiting the families of two young plebs who died in the line of duty added up to a 47-percent moment for the Cameron government. Already the Conservatives are increasingly viewed in Britain as a clique of nasty public-school toffs who despise the ordinary people that they govern. Andrew Mitchell's outburst has only amplified that, and his belated apology to the police officers in question has not quelled the attacks in the press. The search term {Andrew Mitchell plebs police} is currently getting around three and a half thousand hits on the UK edition of Google News.

What's different about the USA situation is that Cameron is not facing an election in seven weeks. He can wait for the hue and cry to die down, and work on altering the public impression of his government as an unpleasant bunch of Flashmans.

Update Sunday 23 September: On a grammar note, the Guardian reports that The Sun has more dirt on Mitchell:

The paper [The Sun] says that Mitchell admitted muttering in earshot of the police: "You guys are supposed to fucking help us."

Mitchell has let it be known he used the word fucking only "adjectivally" and was not directing it at the police.

Sorry to cavil, but a Rugby School boy should have learned his parts of speech. It's not being used adjectivally in fucking help us; it's being used adverbially. Just trying to keep the grammatical record straight.

Update 19 October 2012: Mitchell held out for four weeks, but he did ultimately resign his post as chief whip, on Friday 19 October, as Language Log knew deep down he eventually would. He said the reason for his apology to the police had to do with his parthian shot ("I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us"); he admits swearing but still denies saying plebs.

[Thanks to Tricia Shannon for pointing me to the "plebs" brouhaha.]

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